I visited the Potomac Gardens public housing complex in Southeast Washington the other day to see if people with very little money really care about the arrival of yet another rich man to the city.
A frenzied snowball fight was underway on the sidewalk, but when I asked the children for their reactions to Michael Jordan joining the Washington Wizards front office, an immediate cease-fire was declared.
"I wanna be like Mike," said Davon Jackson, who is 8.
Caronn Johnson, 12, said he wished Jordan would come to Potomac Gardens and teach the boys how to play basketball.
"I want to go one-on-one with him," said Tony Strohman, 11.
Actually, I was hoping somebody would talk about all the money Jordan makes and how little his presence in the city will improve their economic lot in life.
For all of the new high-tech/entertainment cash that is washing over Washington these days, precious little is trickling down. The rich are simply getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
The gap between rich and poor in this city is among the widest in the nation, with the richest fifth of families here having an average income that is 27 times as high as for the poorest fifth.
More than one in three children under 18 living in the District are poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the adverse impact of poverty on them and adults can be felt everywhere--in high rates of infant mortality, low scores on standardized tests in public schools, crowded prisons and morgues.
Alice M. Rivlin, chairman of the city's financial control board and an analyst at the Brookings Institution, has said the economic gap is a "major problem" for the District. And Iris J. Lav, deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has called the situation "pretty distressing."
But in Potomac Gardens, where many a single mother tries to take care of a family of up to five children with as little as $700 a month, there was nothing but glee over Jordan, whose estimated net worth is $357 million.
"He's a champ, a good man," said Doretha Bullock, whose five children live with her in a three-bedroom apartment where the living room is also used for sleeping. "Maybe he'll give away some of those shoes that these kids keep bugging us for."
Potomac Gardens is a 344-unit complex that is home to about 1,000 people. Located just a few miles from the downtown MCI Arena, it is a place where drug dealing and crime were so bad that District officials years ago erected a protective wrought-iron fence around the place.
Some of the buildings in the complex actually look like a cellblock, with dented steel apartment doors, bare cement floors and brick walls painted battleship gray. But the apartments themselves are nice, and the people who live in them remain hopeful.
They aren't as concerned about closing the economic gap between rich and poor; they just want to leap to the other side.
"I'm not greedy," Bullock said when asked how much money it would take for her to live her dreams. "All I need is a million dollars."
Steve Park, executive director of a District-based ministry called Little Lights, was greeted by hugs and snowballs when the neighborhood children saw him walking toward them.
A Korean American who lives across the street from Potomac Gardens, he tutors children and takes them on field trips. You would have thought he was Michael Jordan by the way the kids embraced him.
"I think there is going to be some initial excitement about Jordan coming to town, but it'll fade quickly unless he makes some kind of commitment to invest in our community," Park said. "Over the years, I've heard about Magic Johnson doing that sort of thing--devoting time, talent and money to increase business and job opportunities in low-income areas. But I've never heard of Jordan doing anything like that."
The way Park sees it, the most pressing issue facing children in Potomac Gardens isn't economic. It's their need for attention. And it would be worth all of Jordan's millions and then some if he would simply move into the neighborhood.
"Let him move where it's not expected," Park said. "You move into this part of the city and you're no longer serving from afar. You cannot forget about the problems as easily. There is so much that our children need, so much that money can't buy."
The snowball fight resumed, and children lined up on both sides of the street and began to pelt passing cars. As a sign of how much they have come to respect money, the boys sometimes held their fire at the sight of luxury vehicles and talked about how they, too, will be driving in style someday.
Most of the kids I spoke with believe that professional sports is the ticket out. Only one, a 5-year-old who was the youngest of the bunch, wanted to be something else: "an animal doctor," as he put it.
His chances of becoming a veterinarian are far greater than of becoming a professional athlete. But the forces of America's materialistic urban culture have a way of luring young minds away from school and onto playing fields, if not street corners to deal in dope.
"I'm going to make $300 million a year playing ball," said 13-year-old Troy Bell, basking in the fantasy until a snowball to the head brought him back to reality.
If only it was that easy to wake us all up.
CAPTION: Jordan has put celebrity to work for children at times. Here he poses with the math team at the District's Sousa Middle School.